Content warning: marital infidelity, miscarriage, religious abuse
The first and only time I saw a grown man cry was the summer before eighth grade. After the worship team finished its set and the ushers collected the offering, Deacon Gordon stepped up to the pulpit with tears running down his face. “Pastor Wesley ... ” he began, and it was only then that I looked around and realized that the pastor of the English congregation wasn’t there. Deacon Gordon was now weeping incoherently and my breath caught in my throat. Pastor Wesley must be dead or mortally wounded from a car accident. Or something horrible had happened to his wife, Susanna. Deacon Gordon tried to collect himself and said something I did not catch before the congregation erupted in urgent whispers that echoed off the stowed basketball hoops and rattled the drum set abandoned behind the pulpit.
“A sin worse than death!” my father exclaimed later that day. Unlike Deacon Gordon, Dad didn’t seem sad at all. Instead he stormed around the kitchen shouting at no one in particular before lapsing into Taiwanese. My parents spoke Taiwanese when they didn’t want me to understand what they were talking about, which usually meant they were talking about someone in an unflattering way.
My mother sat at the kitchen table with her hands folded and lips pressed tightly together, absorbing my father’s tirade without speaking. I’d overheard her say Susanna’s name to Auntie Lydia at church and they’d both cried and hugged in an uncharacteristic display of emotion.
Dad’s rant ended as suddenly as it had begun. “Such a tragedy,” he sighed, not looking the least bit sad. “And for what? His wife is still young and beautiful. Foolish man.” He disappeared into the basement, still muttering, leaving my mother and me alone.
I slowly descended the stairs where I had been sitting, crossed the family room, and dropped into the chair across from my mother. “What happened today, Mom? Why did Pastor Wesley have to resign? Is he not a Christian anymore?” Deacon Gordon had used the word “infidelity”, which I’d only ever heard in the King James Version of the Bible and in my social studies textbook, referring to people who didn’t believe in Jesus or Islam. It was kind of funny that Christians and Muslims used the same word to refer to each other.
My mother sighed. “Not exactly. Pastor Wesley ... sinned against God. And his wife.”
“He hit her?” I exclaimed. The guidance counselor had briefly mentioned something called domestic violence in the dumb “personal development” classes we all had to sit through during lunch at the beginning of seventh grade. Sometimes men would lose their tempers and beat their wives or girlfriends, or jealous wives would break dishes or throw things out the window. I had always thought of it as a problem for white families that got too carried away by their passions. It was hard to imagine Pastor Wesley or Susanna getting carried away by anything besides their love of God.
“No, no,” Mom shook her head, and she sounded so sad that I wondered what Pastor Wesley could have done that was worse than hitting Susanna or worse than death like my father had said. She glanced around nervously looking for ... what? Dad? “He ... messed around with someone at church and now she’s pregnant.” Her hand flew to her face as if she couldn’t believe the words coming out of her own lips.
Pears and bananas flashed through my mind. A woman’s uterus is about the size and shape of a pear prior to pregnancy, we had learned in health class. I imagined a pear inside a woman’s belly swelling up to the size of a beach ball, like Mrs. Lin had when she was pregnant with the twins. As for bananas ... well, I still didn’t quite understand what Mrs. Toussaint was really getting at with the bananas but it had something to do with men and their ... urges. My brain struggled to connect the dots. You had to have sex to get pregnant, and you weren’t supposed to have sex with someone you weren’t married to. If Pastor Wesley had made someone who wasn’t Susanna get pregnant, that meant he had to have sex with this other person.
I thought about the shouting couples I’d seen on talk shows during the long empty summers when my parents were at work. “You are not the father,” Maury would say, and the man would storm out because his wife or girlfriend had sex with someone else. “Let’s meet the other family,” Jenny Jones would say as a woman and baby emerged onstage. The wife of the man onstage would either lunge at the new woman or slap her husband or run away crying. Sometimes all three.
None of this had happened at church today, though. I didn’t think this sort of thing could happen to Christians, least of all to a pastor and his family. Susanna led the children’s choir and had always been in the kitchen serving lunch on Sundays or hosting Bible studies in their home on Friday nights before she got pregnant. (Which meant Susanna and Pastor Wesley had ... well, that was too weird to think about.) I heard that she had been very sick with the pregnancy, and then when no baby appeared after nine months, she had stopped coming to church completely. Deacon Yang’s wife had to step in to lead the children’s choir. Was that when things had gone wrong, when Pastor Wesley had ... messed around?
“Are they going to get ... a divorce?” My voice dropped to a whisper at the forbidden word.
My mother shook her head vehemently. “No, she cannot do that. Susanna must forgive Pastor Wesley so they can keep their family together.”
I thought again about the fighting families on TV. Mother Love gave everyone the choice to forgive or forget, and about half chose to forgive while the others walked away.
“But how can their family stay together if Pastor Wesley is having a baby with someone else? What about that family?”
Mom looked at me suspiciously, though she still refused to meet my gaze. My parents didn’t know about my daytime TV habit, or what we’d learned in health class for that matter. I suppose they thought if I didn’t know about sex, I would never want to have sex. Certainly the awkward discussions we had about it in youth group did not make having sex seem particularly appealing, but the leaders kept talking about it so obviously it was important.
“Susanna made a promise when she married Pastor Wesley, for better or for worse,” Mom answered, her brows furrowing.
That didn’t seem completely fair. Didn’t the Bible also say that sins had to be punished? “But Pastor Wesley must have broken his promise! Why should she have to keep her promise if he broke his?” The women on TV who refused to forgive always seemed like the winners to me because they had the power to reject the men who had hurt them.
Slam. My mother slapped the table with both hands and leapt to her feet, quite forgetting to keep her voice down. “And who are you to judge them? The Bible says do not divorce. You think a divorce will make things better? You think just quitting and running away will make her happy? How can Susanna leave? She has no job, not even a child to take care of. What can she do with no husband to provide for her? All these marriage counselors today are spreading these lies about — shenme shenme — freedom, and — nei ge — fulfillment. What fulfillment! Marriage is God’s command, and you can’t just leave whenever things get tough. Don’t be fooled by all those psychologists, Jin-Jin.” She shook her finger at me but her tone softened when she used my childhood pet name. She thought she was helping me. “Only forgiveness can bring true healing. Let us pray for Pastor Wesley and his family.”
My brain was reeling trying to process this outburst, so I said nothing. I folded my hands and bowed my head obediently, but kept my eyes open for just a moment, gazing at my mother as she began to pray.
Our prayers and forgiveness didn’t turn out to be enough for Susanna. She and Pastor Wesley left the church like thieves in the night without farewell or fanfare. I tried to figure out what happened to their family, but no one at church seemed to want to talk about it. There were a few generic sermons about forgiveness, then we hired a new English pastor within six months and moved on.
A few years later, when I was in college, I ran into Susanna at a regional church conference. She was sitting alone at a table in the dining hall, which seemed unusual since there were a lot of people from our church at the conference who would have known her.
“Hi, Susanna!” I greeted her. “I don’t know if you remember me, but you were my choir teacher in sixth grade,” I paused, unsure of whether to dig up this piece of the past. “At CCC.”
She looked up at me and smiled thinly. “Yes, I remember,” she said softly.
“Is Pastor Wesley leading a workshop?” The Chinese church community in the Midwest was so small that the same people rotated through the conference roles year after year. I hadn’t seen Pastor Wesley’s name in the program since he left our church, but maybe that had been some sort of requisite cooling off period.
Her smile wavered. “Oh, no. He and his family live in California now.”
It took me a minute to process the implications of this statement. “But ... you’re his family!” I blurted.
Susanna looked down at her plate. “Not anymore,” she murmured with a shrug. “He has a son — two now, actually — and, well, a father must provide for his children, of course.”
“So you just ... let him go?” Part of my mind screamed at me to stop badgering the poor woman, but what she was saying gave the lie to just about everything I’d been taught about relationships. Forgiveness was supposed to bring healing. The forgiver had the power of grace on their side. There was no precedent on “Maury” or “Forgive or Forget” for the guilty party refusing to accept forgiveness.
“She gave him something I could not. It was God’s will,” Susanna said quietly but decisively.
I don’t recall the platitudes I must have mumbled before fleeing, but I do remember Googling Pastor Wesley after the conference was over. Sure enough, he was a senior pastor at a large Chinese church in Anaheim, joined in ministry by his devoted wife, Eva, and loving father of Jacob and David. Did his California church know what he had left behind in Ohio? Did they care?
I didn’t think about the Yins again for years, remembering Susanna only when I was sitting in my pastor’s office being told that no marriage was perfect but that it was still God’s will for most people. My husband had chosen not to attend this meeting.
“If you show him the respect he needs, he will be able to give you the love you crave,” the pastor instructed, handing me a book with the same slogan on the cover. “After all, he wants to love you like Christ loves the church. But you must submit to him. You cannot let his little mistakes get in the way of God’s plan for your family.”
It was true that the silent treatment and constant criticism weren’t nearly as big of a problem as actual physical abuse or infidelity. But I had a hard time believing that a loving God would want this for anybody.
Had Susanna also endured these admonitions to submit, obey, forgive? The forgiveness formula hadn’t added up for her. Was it going to add up for me?
“Let me pray for you and your husband,” the pastor echoed my mother’s words. It was a command, not an offer.